First Playtest-Observations, Analysis, Lessons

On Thursday 12 February I did my first playtest for my interactive theatre piece. I didn’t have much of the concept super clear, so it’s a little shabby and haphazardly organised at best, but it was great to kick off on creating something and learning from successes and mistakes. Mostly mistakes!

I chose a fairly arbitrary setting: A country at war with an invading force, it’s the middle of winter and below freezing outside. There’s soldiers and tanks about the place. Four members of the audience, the Residents, are holed up inside a house, and have been since the beginning of the war several years ago. They have just enough room for the four of them, and just about enough food to last the rest of the winter.
Another three members of the audience, Northerners, have fled south to the village where that house is, and find themselves in the garage of that house for shelter.

It’s cold and dangerous outside, and the Northerners have had to steal, loot and beg their survival, and are hoping they can stay in this house.
The Residents, however, have heard several damning things about Northerners, and have little supplies to share.

I set up the test loosely in the style of a shortlarp with minimal rules.

First, I divided the groups, gave the Residents pieces of paper representing their food stocks as well as a crowbar and a loaded pistol. I explained the setting and the rules to the Residents while the Northerners waited outside the classroom. The Residents received one or two pieces of paper with “facts they know or think they know” each.
I then explained the setting, in a slightly different manner, to the Northerners outside, giving them “facts” as well.

The facts included things such as:

This house belonged to my uncle before the war.
I heard on the radio that Northerners are allowing the Enemy to use their homes.
I shot a burglar who was trying to break into our house three months ago.
Half of our harvest was plundered.

…For the Residents, and for the Northerners:

Things are much worse up north.
We’ve had to steal food to survive.
We’ve lost three of our group already, including my brother.

The Northerners were brought into the room, and everyone was explained that they had snuck into the garage during the night, and both groups were now in the garage. The goal was presented: to find a solution whether the Northerners could stay, and if they could, what the deal would be.

And some of the questions I wanted to explore by running this test:
How will both groups find a solution? Will they find one? What will the difference in power look like and how will it be expressed? Was the setting, the objective, the rules and “facts” clear enough and did they allow for good gameplay? Did these cause a social wall between the two groups? Did the amount of player emergence/freedom, and/or the amount of defined limits/rules work well? Was it well-balanced?

Here’s the full video of the duration of play, including the discussion/feedback moment afterwards. It’s in Dutch.

 

Quite a lot of interesting, exciting and funny things happened, as well as a few confusing moments for the players, a loss of focus and some boring bits.

Interestingly, from the very start there were enough reasons for the Residents to immediately put up some sort of barrier to the Northerners. As an interesting contrast, one of the Residents, whose uncle had owned the house and thus he saw himself as the owner, “Since when was this a democracy”, tried to solve the issue in a very utilitarian manner, trying to help the Northerners and find a fair solution. One of the other Residents stoically refused to have anything to do with the Northerners, and would rather have them thrown out to fend for themselves. He had heard over the radio that Northerners helped the enemy, which wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the Northerners played as a very erratic (and hilariously so) character! That particular Resident even stood ready with his crowbar behind his back, in case the other group tried anything.

Throughout the play, there were several moments when it seemed that a solution had been found, only to be sabotaged by the erratic Northerner, or one of the Residents who found a reason to not let them in, for example one of the Northerners being ill.

At the end of the play (which I called due to a stalemate, a boring bit and an empty camera battery), the solution was to let the Northerners stay in the garage, in quarantine, while they and one of the Residents, who had greedily scoffed up a portion of the food supplies (he chewed on some paper) had to go out and scavenge for food and medicine.

 

Through some very helpful feedback from the players, I got some conclusions and observations from the test.

The setting was clear, but the limits which were supposed to be implied by it (eg that it really was quite dangerous and cold outside) were not. In this way it wasn’t as terrible for both groups to throw the Northerners out.

The relationships between the characters within both groups weren’t clear at all, and were pretty much made up on the fly. More time to establish these, or to dictate them beforehand, could solve that.

The “facts” worked well as a way to have a handhold on something to talk about, and reasons for making decisions, but might have worked better if they contradicted each other so that players wouldn’t know whether they were true.

It wasn’t clear at all when the players had “reached” their objective. A solution to the issue is quite subjective. This made the play drag on a bit and made the end boring and confusing.

It wasn’t clear for the players how much freedom for emergent play they had; what they were “allowed” to do and what they weren’t. This made it so that players weren’t sure whether, for example, one of the Northerners stamping angrily out of the room was part of the game or just joking about, same goes for the Resident who ate all the food! So, the limits need to be clearer, as do the freedoms.

To the players (my classmates, really) who knew what my research is about, the subject matter and relevancy to the test was clear.

There could have been more things for the players to do, apart from talking with each other. Some intermediary objectives, some asset management, even just doing the dishes, keeping watch, and such.

Some of the Residents had every reason to refuse the other group, while some had very little reason. This had everything to do with the “facts” they had received at the start.

The Northerners were willing to accept almost every compromise, except for the erratic one, who fought against most compromises, but only because of the character he played. I should try to give that group some more reasons or leverage to keep the conflict exciting for them.

In general, I think this test fitted well with the subject matter of social and political walls. The behaviour of the audience fitted fairly well with what I want to reach, now it’s partly about trying to find a good formula to keep it exciting, fun and engaging.

Lastly, and most pleasantly, the audience generally enjoyed the playtest.

The coming week I’ll be running another playtest. Probably going to veer quite a bit away from the free, emergent style of shortlarps and introduce some more rules. Make it a bit more like a theatrical board game, and see how that works.

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